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North Carolina announced Thursday morning that Price had injured a tendon in his left hand during a blocking drill in practice on Tuesday that would require surgery on Friday. The sophomore joined senior Charles Brown in representing the only legitimate experience at the cornerback position.
"Any time you lose anybody, it's a blow," interim head coach Everett Withers told reporters following practice. "But it may not be a blow. We may have him. We don't know how long, if at all, that he's out. We'll find out after surgery."
Withers approached red-shirt junior wide receiver Todd Harrelson after practice on Wednesday about switching positions to cornerback, and the Chesapeake, Va. product agreed, citing a desire to help his team. The 6-foot-2, 195-pounder worked with the second team defense on in practice on Thursday afternoon.
"He looked pretty good," defensive backs coach Troy Douglas said. "We've got two weeks. Hopefully he can make it in two weeks. We've got to get him ready for the games. We need him because we need bodies over there. We need guys that have played and have experience playing, so hopefully in two weeks he'll be ready to roll."
Douglas pointed to Harrelson's size, good feet and ball skills as strengths that will help ease the transition, while also praising his toughness in making special teams plays as both a gunner and punt returner.
For Harrelson, one of the most difficult aspects of the move is learning to run after the ball on every single play.
"The game speed is the biggest difference," said Harrelson, who changed numbers from No. 82 to No. 13. "Once I get comfortable with that, I should be fine."
With Price's experience on the shelf for at least six weeks, as well as Brown having to sit out the season opener against James Madison due to suspension, Withers and Douglas also moved sophomore Tre Boston from safety to cornerback and Gene Robinson from cornerback to safety. Backup free safety Matt Merletti has moved up to the first team to fill Boston's spot.
"We feel like we've got a good idea at safety what [Boston] can do, so we wanted to give him some reps at corner to get an idea of where we might be able to use him," Withers said in addressing the changes. "We might be able to use him in both spots. Todd – we've been talking about moving Todd over there for nearly a year-and-a-half to two years. So to move him over now is easy. He was an all-state corner in high school and he looks pretty natural over there to me."
Boston is fully onboard with the move.
"I'm willing to do whatever my team needs me to do," said Boston, who has added 25 pounds to his frame over the past year. "It's just another transition for me. I'm used to it. I played it last year. Just getting my sea legs back today, so hopefully I can do it."
Douglas indicated that Boston's eventual position will depend on how the Harrelson experiment works out, but he made it clear where he thought the 6-foot-1, 200-pounder should play.
"In a dream world, you'd like to have Tre Boston be your free safety because he's so athletic and he's physical and that's where he's practiced mostly now," Douglas said. "That's a bonus that he can play corner and we played him there last year. He's the logical guy just because he's got some experience playing there, so that's why we made that move. He's a good corner, but I think he can be a great safety."
During the media portion of practice, Boston teamed with true freshman Tim Scott in working with the first team defense at cornerback. Fellow rookies Kameron Jackson and Alex Dixon held down the third string unit, while Sam Smiley was sidelined with an "ankle tweak," according to Withers.
"The [freshman] that's coming the fastest is Tim Scott," Douglas said. "I've been really impressed with Tim. Very fluid, smooth, played some on offense during high school, so he's got ball skills. He's smart. So he's kind of separated from the others. Now the other ones have talent, it's just that they might not even know that they're in Chapel Hill yet. But they've got ability. He's the one that's kind of jumped out a little bit because of how savvy he is."
Because of the sudden movement and the focus on bring the true freshmen up to speed, Douglas said that the nickel back spot is a currently in "all hands on deck" mode. Boston, C. Brown, Scott, Robinson and walk-on Pete Mangum are all in position to man that role.
For now, the Tar Heel coaching staff is working to fill the gaps in a secondary that already had plenty of question marks heading into the 2011 season.